Confusing the Government With God

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

By John Zmirak Published on April 9, 2018

This past weekend was a hope-filled one. I traveled to Virginia. There I met a wonderful group of high school and college students. Courtesy of Young America’s Foundation, these 80 or so young people gathered to hear from intellectuals and leaders. And also from me. The conservative group organized this Catholic-specific conference to arm young people with better arguments and point them to first principles. Those who spoke included a number who have appeared here at The Stream.

Stream executive editor Jay Richards unfolded four of the key myths that turn good people away from the free market. Scholar Paul Kengor told the students the deeply dramatic story of President Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul II. In his book, A Pope and a President, he delves in depth into the most remarkable partnership ever to dismantle an evil empire. Students for Life of America leader Kristan Hawkins urged the students to invite their friends into a movement to defend the most vulnerable Americans. To see the whole program go here, though my video hasn’t been posted yet.

A Dreamy Talk

And the poor kids had to listen to me as well. Not even me at my best, but me at 9:00 in the morning (8 am, Central time). What I’m usually doing at such an hour is neatly summed up as “REM sleep.” So I roused myself at this ungodly hour on a Saturday morning, with a lot of hotel coffee. The talk that resulted was a little more free-form than most of my articles, I think because part of my brain was really still dreaming.

The event was something of a dream-come-true. Here were all these bright and eager young people, chirping like hungry birds for something solid to feed their minds. And generous donors had equipped each one of them with a free copy of my Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism to take home. So even if I wasn’t all that coherent in my remarks, they’d have the book that connects the dots to read at their leisure.

Here’s the gist of what I told the students.

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The Tower of Babel

One of the worst problems in history has been this: We mistake God for the government, and the government for God. By history I mean ancient, as in the Book of Genesis: What else should we call the Tower of Babel but this: A massive government program ordered by a tyrant. Its goal? To forge a purely human link to heaven. To assert that the state (and via group narcissism, its people) could grab eternal glory by man’s own sweaty exertions. God knew just what to do: He knocked down the tower and confused all its people by making them speak different languages.

Now, I’d once thought of this bible passage was in part a “just-so” story to explain the diversity of human tongues. But it’s much more than that. It’s a warning against attempts to weld human peoples together artificially. To ever form one world government, as some idealists dream. 

The dream of imposing a single currency, a secret oligarchy, and limitless alien migrants on more than dozen countries will end just as badly as Lenin’s experiment. I’m confident that in my lifetime, delighted crowds will smash the EU’s Brussels headquarters with pickaxes, as they did the Berlin Wall.

Pharaoh and Caesar Hunting God’s People

The next instance where people conflated God and their rulers was in Egypt. A Pharaoh whose people he taught to worship him as a kind of god enslaved and persecuted the genuine God’s people. He humbled Pharaoh, and set His people free.

The Soviet Union was one attempt to impose a single system on all the peoples of the world. It collapsed in a mass of rusted tanks and graffiti-covered walls. The European Union is another, and it seems every bit as doomed.

Next up was the turn of the Christians, who sought no political power inside the Roman empire. They weren’t even separatists. But the desperate rulers of a crumbling empire decided that the glue which would hold their system together would have to be religion: Every Roman resident would have to acclaim him as a god.

The Church said politely, “No.” A massive persecution that lasted on and off for centuries yielded thousands of martyrs. But the sight of people with enough faith to willingly die in the Colosseum had an unexpected effect: It shocked the jaded Romans, and made them think. What were they willing to die for? What in the mass of mystery religions and philosophical systems offered such blessed certainty? Were the Christians on to something? And so the faith kept on spreading, and with Constantine conquered the empire itself.

Treating Caesar Like Moses

That offered the next temptation to conflate divine and human authority. Christian emperors, for all the good they accomplished, were treated almost as idols. Though they had no religious role, they were treated as quasi-priestly, as a bridge between earth and heaven. And why not? They had the power of life and death over their subjects. The Church gave them the power to persecute heretics, and keep Christendom “pure.” In the East, this led to a church that was all-too-subject to secular interference.

In the West, the empire collapsed, and churchmen had to step up and help keep public order. That had its own dangers. Once bishops and monks were administering large parts of countries, that tempted the rulers to try to get them under their control. The good works the Church did made it a tempting target. One of the least-noticed effects of the Reformation? The almost complete take-over of the Church by the state. Yes, in the England of Henry VIII. But not just there.

The Reformation divided the Church and weakened its stance against the state. As the price of not imitating Henry, kings could demand outrageous influence over the Church’s every function. In Catholic France, the king named all the bishops. Likewise in Spain, where the king also prevented the documents of the Council of Trent from getting published for 70 years.

Liberty Reborn in Britain

Ironically, it was in England where the splintering of Christians into so many quarreling factions made something remarkable happen: People rediscovered the idea that the government shouldn’t try to manage its subjects’ religion. That led them to dust off medieval ideas of resistance to central tyranny, and helped found the tradition of liberty we now enjoy in America. In fact, when the U.S. was founded, the Holy See wrote to Congress asking permission to name a bishop. The U.S. Congress was puzzled. It wrote back, explaining that Catholics were free here to do as they pleased. In not one Catholic country in Europe was that really true.

It’s our duty as citizens and believers to make sure it stays true. There are many, and growing, threats to religious liberty in America. Each of them grows from the new religion that our elite classes have adopted and wish to impose. Unlike them, we know the difference between God and Caesar. And we won’t worship idols. Instead, we will fight.

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